The translator

by Cristóbal


The dominant subject today is subcultural. They are fluent in a language (slang, jargon, clothing, music, etc) originating within a circumscribed community. Acquiring the language is a natural process of affiliation with those around the individual, regardless of whether it is a response to concrete material conditions or interpellated into existence through marketing. Critically, it involves the explicit development of a particular field of competence, determining scarcity, as well as the performance of the language to be legible as member, both to peers and external watchers.

What is notable is the subculture’s financialization. As legible and scarce, they become a commodity to be transacted and attract the eyes of financial capital. Speaking the language gives access to not only the in-group and a sensation of belonging, but also the associated spoils. Once inserted into the marketplace, the subculture must respond to their new position as commodity—only consistency can guarantee fungibility.

As such, belonging to a subculture is not free. It is accompanied by a social rigidity—the necessity of continuing to enact the subculture chosen. If these demands become untenable, the house of cards collapses, and the subject is disgraced.

In the first volume of Rabelais’ comic work, upon hearing of his reputation, Thaumaste challenges Pantagruel to a public debate in order to test the protagonist’s erudition. To escape sophistry, it is proposed that the debate take place in the form of signs, rather than with words. The demand of performing his erudition leaves Pantagruel in a anxious state. He spends the evening reading up Bede, On Numbers and Signs; Plotinus, On Things Which Cannot be Told; Proclus, On Magic; Artemidorus, On the Meanings of Dreams; Anaxagoras, On Signs; Ynarius, On Things Which Cannot Be Uttered; and Philistion, Hipponax, On Things Not to Be Spoken, and a whole lot more.

Perceiving his stage fright, Panurge intervenes recommending he go to sleep, but not before a good twenty-five or thirty drinks. Panurge is Pantagruel’s companion, who will subvert the demands of erudition through jest. He declares himself to Thaumaste as mere disciple of Pantagruel, and as such, a prelude to the real debate. After a series of comical back-and-forth signs (worth reading and re-enacting), Panurge lays the final blow—

Panurge put his two index fingers either side of his mouth, pulling it as far back as he could and baring all his teeth; and with his two thumbs he pulled his eyelids very deeply down, making a very ugly grimace”

Rabelais’ character does not take the challenge head on. It is a literature of lightness, of humor and wit, taking life not with the strong wide stance of a defender, but with the grace of deflection of Aikido, a matador’s olé at the bull fixed on the red cape. Life comes at you and you elegantly side-step and laugh at it strewn out against the floor. Is this not Calvino’s auspicious image for the millennium?

The sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times—noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring—belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.

Who is this subject that Rabelais presents us? Bakhtin offers the categories of the rogue’s subversion of rules, the clown’s playful mocking of language, and the fool’s stupidity which estranges us. I’ll offer a fourth: the translator. Their identity is not located within a group, but rather in the interstices between them. They too agents of heteroglossia”, many voices coexistent within the same entity, bringing into question the stability of any one frame. As we know, translation is the most intimate one can be with a text.

Only a cursory understanding of their role would suggest that they are unserious and unwilling to be invested in any particular identity, split between two poles. Both embedded within the habitus, while also able to step out of this frame, the translator must be able to deconstruct the vortexes that funnel behaviour into compact homogeneous points. Unlike the performer, the translator cannot simply sail in style, but must understand the ocean currents driving the movement of the waves from underneath. It is notable that two of the most incisive characterizations of the United States come from immigrants: a Swiss (Robert Frank’s The Americans) and a German (Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas).

The translator too longs for belonging. Philosophy is really homesickness,” says Novalis: it is the urge to be at home everywhere.” The nomad may pack light, but they are attuned to the changes of the land. Wim Wenders even has stated in interviews that, were he not a filmmaker, he’d be a tour guide.